Saturday, April 22, 2017

Classics: A Review of Victoria by Lauren Ennis


As today’s child stars will attest to, growing up in the spotlight is far from easy. With awkward stages and impulsive mistakes on full view, life in the limelight often proves the most difficult for the youngest celebrities to bear. Combining the pressures of an adolescence in the public eye with the responsibility of governing an empire seems an impossible task to imagine. In 1837, however, one teen not only assumed that daunting task, but did so with a grace and gumption that paved the way for her to become one of England’s most admired and renowned monarchs. The ITV series Victoria chronicles the life and reign of Queen Victoria, with its recently completed first season focusing exclusively upon her earliest years on the throne. In the first season’s eight episodes viewers are treated to watching the young Victoria grow up before our eyes as she evolves from resourceful but experienced teen to a young woman worthy of the title of Queen.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown
The story begins in 1837 as sheltered Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is thrust into the spotlight after her uncle, King William, dies leaving her next in line to ascend to the throne. Like most teens, she initially relishes her newfound power and independence and refuses to take the advice of the duplicitous adults surrounding her. After a series of political scandals threaten her reign, however, she quickly learns that there’s more to being a queen than giving orders and holding balls. Fortunately, she finds a true ally amidst the sycophants and conspirators surrounding her in Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), who becomes her closest confidante and mentor. Just as she becomes accustomed to her position, however, she is faced with the challenge of choosing a husband, a difficult choice that brings her political goals and personal feelings into conflict. As she continues to overcome one personal and political obstacle after another Victoria begins her journey to becoming one of England’s most successful sovereigns.

While accounts of royal lives have flooded television and cinema for decades, Victoria stands out from its counterparts by lending equal focus to Victoria the woman and Victoria the queen. Rather than portraying her as the poised monarch she is best remembered as, the Victoria of the series is a living breathing teenager who alternates between willfulness and impressionableness and naiveté and shrewdness as she struggles to come to terms with her new role. Utilizing her actual letters and diary entries, the series crafts a portrait of a complex heroine who has flaws and quirks to spare, making Queen Victoria one of the most relateable monarchs ever put to cinema.


Lord Melbourne restoring faith in politicians since 1837
Victoria’s relationships with her family, friends, and love interests are portrayed with an equal nuance, which allows each character to develop into three dimensional and compelling roles. Her relationship with Prince Albert, for instance, is striking in its realism and subtlety as the couple first clash, only to later obtain a begrudging respect for one another, which eventually develops into a romance. Even after the couple marry, their relationship continues to evolve as Albert struggles to adjust to life in a new country where he is expected to take a secondary role to his wife and Victoria attempts to juggle the dual roles of wife and queen. Her relationship with Lord Melbourne is equally complicated as the two strive to maintain a professional relationship, even as their feelings threaten to grow into something more. Rather than an understandable schoolgirl crush, her infatuation is portrayed as an effort to fill the void left by her lack of close family ties, while his attraction to her is presented as an effort to cope with his grief after the loss of his wife. This insight into the pair’s mindsets leaves viewers with a clear understanding of what draws them to each other, all while reminding us of why a romance cannot develop between them. The conflict between their feelings for one another and their duties to their country is truly heartfelt and lends the series some of its most poignant moments. Even the supporting characters such as Victoria’s loving but overbearing governess, and Albert’s roguish but well-meaning brother are portrayed with a depth and intelligence that brings each character to vibrant life.

The uniformly excellent performances of the cast transport viewers into the gritty world of the nineteenth century. Through his combination of world weariness, idealism, and amiable charm, Rufus Sewell nearly steals every scene that he appears in as the honorable and conflicted Lord Melbourne. Tom Hughes is the ideal romantic hero in his role as Prince Albert and perfectly captures the passion and moral courage that define his character. Nell Hudson and Ferdinand Kingsley are engrossing in their roles as cynical laundress turned queen’s dresser Eliza Skerrett and ambitious chef Charles Francatelli and bring a charm and realism to their roles that keeps viewers engaged their characters’ downstairs romance even in the midst of upstairs intrigues. Despite the outstanding performances surrounding her, the series belongs to Jenna Coleman in her turn as the newly crowned queen. With a fire and steely resilience befitting Scarlett O’Hara, Coleman portrays her Victoria as a dynamo who is truly ahead of her time, bringing a modern edge to her historical role.

A historical drama for modern times, Victoria is equal parts informative and entertaining. Through its insightful script and superb performances the series brings nineteenth century England to vibrant life and provides viewers with an enthralling glimpse into the tumultuous life of one of history’s most famous monarchs. In its portrayal of Victoria as a passionate and assertive woman, the series transcends its genre trappings to tell a story that is at once relevant and empowering. For a royally fascinating journey into the past look no further than Victoria.

Be still, my girlish heart

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Classics: Three Epic Hollywood Feuds By Lauren Ennis


It is often said that there is no business like show business, and perhaps there is no business that is quite so turbulent, unforgiving, and ultimately ruthless. With select few parts to be filled and innumerable hopefuls to fill them, it is little wonder as to why Hollywood is infamous for its hostile working environments. By the same token, it is no surprise that tinsel-town in all its toxic glory treated audiences to some of the most gritty, malicious, and utterly outrageous feuds in modern history. This week I’ll be turning the spotlight on three Hollywood feuds that were so vicious, vindictive, and venomous that they continue to fascinate viewers even in today’s era of Twitter tirades and social media scandal.

The feud to end all feuds
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: Perhaps the most infamous feud on this list, the ongoing battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is almost as legendary as the stars themselves. The ultimate throw-down that culminated in the 1963 Oscar race had relatively humble origins, however, with struggling character actress Davis resenting glamor-queen Crawford’s success, which she was commonly said to have achieved by sleeping her way through the ranks at MGM. Similarly, Crawford came to begrudge the critical acclaim that theater-trained Davis began receiving which had always eluded her. This dislike escalated in 1935 when Davis began a flirtation with her Dangerous co-star Franchot Tone, only to later learn to her dismay that he had begun a relationship with Crawford during filming. Making matters worse, Davis was forced to face her romantic rival on a regular basis, as Crawford visited Tone daily on the set for the remainder of the shoot. Crawford and Tone married later that year, but ultimately divorced in 1938. Relations failed to improve between Crawford and Davis, however, as Davis’ star steadily rose throughout the remainder of the 1930’s, while Crawford’s gradually declined. By the 1940’s Davis had become the undisputed queen of Warner Brothers, until she faced competition with the arrival of Crawford, who had been released from her contract by MGM in 1943. In an effort to reign in the fiery and independent Davis (who had sued the studio in 1936) Warner Brothers began pitching scripts that had once been strictly Davis’ territory to Crawford. Matters went from bad to worse for Davis after Crawford won the 1945 Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce, a role that Davis had previously rejected.

Both stars continued to turn in exemplary performances into the 1950’s, but as the 1960’s approached found it increasingly difficult to find work in a youth-centric industry. It was at this time when both women were facing career lows that they collaborated on what would become one of their most beloved hits, the 1962 horror cult classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Initially, the two women attempted to put their differences aside, but eventually manipulations by the studio and the press (including private conversations from both actresses leaked in an effort to draw publicity) reopened old wounds. By the time that filming wrapped, their working relationship had completely deteriorated with Davis infuriated by admitted alcoholic Crawford’s inebriated on-set antics and discrediting interviews with local gossip columnists and Crawford incensed by Davis’ abrupt manner and disparaging comments. After shooting finished the real war had only just begun when Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and Crawford launched a smear campaign to ensure her rival’s loss. When the Best Actress award went to Anne Bancroft Crawford took to the stage and eagerly accepted on her behalf, as Bancroft was performing on Broadway and unable to attend. While Davis was understandably bitter, she still put her work first when she was approached to re-team with Crawford in the follow-up horror film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Almost as soon as filming began, however, the old flames reignited, prompting Crawford to withdraw from the project and her role to ultimately be recast with Davis’ long-time friend Olivia de Havilland in the part. The pair rarely spoke publicly of their infamous animosity, although Davis would tantalizingly advise curious reporters to, “Meet me in private if you want to know what I really think”.

Olivia, Olivia, Olivia, why is it always Olivia?!
Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine: Speaking of Olivia de Havilland, she was also half of another legendary feud, one that lasted virtually from cradle to grave with her professional rival and sister, Joan Fontaine. Born just fifteen months apart, the two reportedly engaged in what might be the most bitter sibling rivalry this side of Downton Abbey (yes, I’m looking at you Mary and Edith), which ultimately resulted in an estrangement which lasted until the end of Fontaine’s life. The feud began as a textbook case of sibling rivalry as both girls scrambled for their mother’s affection after their parents divorced shortly following Joan’s birth. According to Fontaine’s memoir, No Bed of Roses, the rivalry quickly developed into abuse as de Havilland bullied, intimidated, and allegedly assaulted her younger sister. In one particularly disturbing passage, Fontaine even describes an incident in which de Havilland allegedly fractured her collarbone. As the sisters grew older, they continued to compete with each other in school, romance, and eventually their careers. Both sisters pursued careers in acting, but de Havilland was the first to score a contract when she signed with Warner Brothers in 1935. Fontaine stated that she was interested in auditioning for Warner Brothers as well, but eventually signed with RKO in 1937 after their mother insisted that they should work for separate studios. She also began work under their stepfather’s surname after their mother warned her that “two de Havilland was too much for one marquis”. De Havilland built a substantial resume in a series of feisty girl-next-door roles, with particularly notable performances in adventure films opposite her friend and frequent co-star Errol Flynn. Meanwhile, Fontaine began building her own career in a series of comedic parts including The Women and Gunga Din. De Havilland earned the family’s first Oscar nomination for her role as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, but it was her co-star, Hattie McDaniel who took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, Melanie Wilkes was a role that Fontaine claimed to have auditioned for. According to her memoir, Fontaine arrived to audition for director George Cukor (who was later fired from the project), but was rejected on the grounds that she was, “much too stylish” to play Melanie. She then goes on to write that when she learned of the reasoning behind her rejection she suggested that the director audition her sister if he needed a less stylish actress, inspiring him to eventually cast de Havilland. Regardless of the truth of her account, the way in which Fontaine takes credit for de Havilland’s landing her most famous role and her comments regarding de Havilland’s fashion sense speak volumes about their relationship.

Fontaine went on to earn her first Oscar nomination for her role as the second Mrs Dewinter in Rebecca in 1940, but it wasn’t until the following year in 1941 that she won the first Oscar in the family for her role in Suspicion. While de Havilland was reportedly supportive of her sister’s win, relations between the sisters remained strained they continued to engage in a series of crosses and double crosses in their personal lives. In breaking with one of sisterhood’s golden rules, Fontaine married de Havilland’s former boyfriend, Brian Ahern in 1939. Making matters worse, Fontaine told de Havilland that de Havilland’s then boyfriend, renowned playboy Howard Hughes had made a pass at her at Fontaine and Ahern’s wedding rehearsal. Later in 1946 when de Havilland married the four times divorced writer Marcus Goodrich, Fontaine joked with the press that “It’s too bad Olivia’s husband has so many wives and only one book”. By the time that de Havilland won her first of two Oscars in 1946 for her role in To Each His Own, their relationship was reduced to such a severe estrangement that de Havilland refused to acknowledge Fontaine when Fontaine approached her backstage to congratulate her (a moment which was famously captured by a photo in Photoplay magazine). While de Havilland went on to win a second Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress, Fontaine never earned another Oscar nod. When their mother died in 1975 Fontaine was out of the country and later said that she only learned of her mother’s death by chance, as de Havilland did not notify her of the death or invite her to the service. Through all of the ups and downs of their tumultuous relationship de Havilland refused to speak of the feud saying only, “A feud implies hostile conduct by two parties. I have no memory of any hostile conduct on my part”. In a bizarre twist Fontaine later claimed that the entire feud was a fabrication created by the press, despite all of the allegations that she had publicly made. Regardless of Fontaine’s attempt to retract her allegations, the sisters remained estranged at the time of Fontaine’s death in 2013, and Fontaine reportedly became estranged from her daughter as well after her daughter refused to sever ties with de Havilland. Fontaine once said of her sister, “Olivia has always said I was first at everything. I got married first, I got an Academy Award first, I had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious because again I’ll have gotten there first”. Movie buffs can only wonder what de Havilland makes of that ironic statement today.

One screen is too small for two contenders
Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando: Proving that feuds aren’t just for the fair sex, two of tinsel town’s most legendary tough guys engaged in a spat of their own. While working on the classic musical Guys and Dolls Frank Sinatra was dismayed to find that he had been cast in what was arguably a supporting role to Marlon Brando’s lead. When later asked about his sour behavior on set Sinatra admitted that he felt slighted by Brando’s being cast in the lead, a part that Sinatra argued, “just didn’t fit him [Brando]”. In retaliation, Sinatra was cold to Brando and was described by co-star Regis Toomey as being “snotty and very difficult” throughout filming. In an attempt to smooth their working relationship Brando offered to rehearse and run lines with Sinatra, to which Sinatra snapped, “I don’t go for that Method crap”. During filming Sinatra wanted to continue his usual screen habit of shooting each scene in one take, while theater-trained Brando preferred to rehearse, shoot multiple takes, and take the time to fully embody his character. When Brando had finally tired of Sinatra harassing him and referring to him as ‘mumbles’ and ‘the world’s most overrated actor’ he devised a plan to get even by blowing his line on purpose during one of their scenes. By the time that Brando finally decided to get his line right, the scene, in which Sinatra was required to each cheesecake (which he loathed) was shot for a total of nine takes. Infuriated at Brando’s prank, Sinatra leapt across the table waving his fork like a weapon and shouted, “these f***ing New York actors; how much cheesecake do you think I can eat?!”   As filming continued, the co-stars refused to speak to one another and the cast and crew were forced to relay messages between them, splitting the cast into two camps; pro-Sinatra and pro-Brando. While the film was a hit, both vowed to never to work together again, with Brando describing his co-star as “the kind of guy who when he dies, he’s going to go to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald”. While they never worked together again after their explosive collaboration their feud remains the stuff of Hollywood legend.
 
And now, as a bonus here is the trailer for the FX hit drama Feud: Bette and Joan, which is inspired by the real-life feud between Davis and Crawford.
 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Classics: A Review of Big Eyes By Lauren Ennis


It is often said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It is also a commonly held belief that the best art is that which contains or reveals some universal truth. In the 2014 historical drama Big Eyes, the importance of truth and beauty in art propel a media sensation and a landmark legal case.  Beautiful or not, the true story behind Margaret Keane’s iconic ‘big eyes’ paintings is every bit as haunting and polarizing as the paintings themselves and startlingly relevant in today’s era of instant celebrity.
The juciest art scandal this side of the Gardner Museum Heist

The story begins in 1958 as recent divorcee Margaret Ulbricht (Amy Adams) sets out in search of a fresh start in San Francisco with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye and Emily Bruhn) in tow. While trying to sell her paintings of large eyed waifs at a local art fair she meets and is instantly captivated by charming fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). The pair embark upon a whirlwind romance, and are soon married. Much to her dismay, however, the marriage does not provide the financial security she had hoped for and the couple turn to selling their art as a second income. Eventually, Walter convinces a local club owner (Jon Polito) to rent out wall space in his club to display their art. When Walter gets into a drunken brawl with the club owner that ends up making local news, the paintings become a local curiosity and Margaret’s work begins selling...with Walter listed as the artist. Manipulated into presenting the paintings as his, she takes a secondary role in her relationship and career, which quickly weighs upon her conscience. When the media frenzy surrounding the paintings incites a critical backlash from the art world the pair’s relationship finally reaches its breaking point. Margaret ultimately flees her second marriage and reinvents herself in Hawaii as a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Her renewed faith in God and herself provide her with the strength to reveal the tangled truth about her life and work, and finally dispel the big lies surrounding the iconic big eyes.

Big Eyes sets itself apart from other historical dramas by looking beyond the facts of the Keanes’ deception to the motivations behind it. Through its exploration of Margaret’s reluctant acceptance of Walter’s scheme to her eventual revolt against it, the film depicts an apt portrayal of changing gender roles in 1960’s America. When viewers are first introduced to her, Margaret is still reeling from her recent divorce and finds herself adrift in the cutting edge culture of 60’s California. This initial impression provides crucial insight into her mindset, and explains why she was so drawn to Walter and the supposed security he represented. Similarly, her failed attempts to launch her career as an artist leave little wonder as to why she accepted his argument that her work would only sell if sold under a male artist’s name. As a result, the film makes sense of Margaret’s otherwise baffling choices by placing her decisions within the historical context of the era she is inhabiting. Through its focus upon the external factors that drive Margaret, the film presents her story in such a way that her efforts to find herself and reclaim her work directly parallel the ways in which millions of American women in her generation claimed their place beyond the confines of traditional roles.

Talk about Bette Davis eyes!
Beyond any political ideas it may invoke, Big Eyes is first and foremost a character study and director Tim Burton sheds a by turns sympathetic and critical eye upon his complex characters. Rather than relying upon the lavish special effects or garish costuming that his films have become known for, Burton returns to his roots in this deceptively simple tale of a search for artistic recognition gone outrageously awry. Much like his early hit, Ed Wood, the film poignantly depicts the by turns perilous and fulfilling pursuit of a life in the arts. The film differs from its predecessor, however, in that it unflinchingly portrays the ways in which the need for critical and monetary success can embitter even the most sincere artist. Despite the darkness of the film’s subject matter, however, Burton’s light approach and obvious affection for his characters allows the story to simultaneously serve as both a cautionary tale of what we leave behind on our journey to the top, and a heartfelt tribute to the redeeming power of art. Equal parts feminist allegory and offbeat character study there’s nothing small about the ideas and themes explored in Big Eyes.

The talented ensemble cast brings the stranger than fiction tale of the Keane paintings to vibrant life. The supporting cast lend apt performances with Danny Huston and Krysten Ritter earning particular notice in their roles as a cynical reporter and Margaret’s worldly best friend. Delaney Raye and Emily Bruhn are equally believable in their portrayals of Margaret’s daughter, Jane and excellently capture the ways in which the Keanes’ fraught relationship and the lies surrounding it impact her as she grows older. Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams each hold their own as Margaret and Walter and portray the couple’s relationship with a depth and nuance that sheds light on how and why the pair propagated one of the greatest deceptions in art history. Waltz’s performance showcases Walter’s con-man charm while slowly revealing the sinister motivations lurking beneath his amiable façade. Adams paints a sympathetic portrait of Margaret as she evolves from insecure to resilient without downplaying her complicity in Walter’s scheme.

The ‘big eyes’ paintings are considered products of the commercialism of 1960’s pop culture, but the story behind Big Eyes is truly one for the ages. Through its combination of an intelligent script, a uniformly superb cast, and timeless themes, the film relates a historical tale that continues to resonate today. Part historical drama and part inspirational tale, Big Eyes artfully portrays truths about the search for self and recognition that extend far beyond the confines of its 60’s pop art setting. For a bit of art history that is truly too strange to be fiction take a glimpse at Big Eyes.

Warhol had nothing on this marketing team

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Classics: A Review of Chicago By Lauren Ennis


Drugs, alcohol, adultery, celebrity, and murder; these are just some of the elements of a hot selling headline in 2017. Before you start bemoaning the state of modern society just yet, however, these same elements make up a tale of debauchery and decadence set nearly one hundred years ago. Inspired by the frenzy surrounding two real life murder cases, the 2002 hit movie musical Chicago cleverly satirizes the mores and media of the roaring twenties in a way that highlights the darker aspects of our own celebrity centric age. Part escapist journey into the most sordid of the ‘good old days’ and part eerie glimpse into our own present, Chicago is a film with just enough razzle dazzle to leave you begging for more.
The slammer never looked so sexy

The story begins with bored housewife Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) witnessing the arrest of local nightclub sensation Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while out on the town with her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West). Later, when she realizes that Fred has no intentions of fulfilling his promise to help her break into show business, Roxie follows in Velma’s footsteps and shoots him to death. After her attempt to disguise the murder as an act of self-defense fails to impress the police, she finds herself on ‘murderess row’ in Cook County Jail facing a potential death sentence. While in prison, Roxie is reunited with Velma, and after witnessing how the stage star uses her notoriety to boost her career becomes determined to capitalize upon her own infamy. When both women enlist the services of slick defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the stage is set for a toe-tapping rivalry that is truly to die for.

Although Chicago marks Roxie and Velma’s fourth incarnation after a previous stage play, a silent drama, and a heavily sanitized 1940’s drama, the film manages to approach its story with a wit and nuance that makes the tale startlingly fresh. Rather than employ the stage technique of having characters spontaneously break out into song, director Rob Marshall cleverly presents all the musical numbers as part of an elaborate fantasy in Roxie’s warped imagination. This technique avoids becoming pretentious by highlighting the outrageousness of both Roxie’s perspective and the whirlwind events surrounding her, while smoothing the transition between story and song. Written by famed stage team Fred Ebb and John Kander the show maintains the musical style and dark sensibility of the duo’s earlier effort, Cabaret, but utilizes a knowing wit and darkly comic approach that ensure the film never becomes outright bleak.

The film manages to pay apt tribute to the story’s stage roots, while still creating a cohesive and fast paced drama.  The majority of the stage musical’s songs are all present, and maintain their distinctive vaudeville vibe and jazzy edge. The group numbers are appropriately dazzling as the songs play upon the overwhelming atmosphere of a crowded courtroom and the dizzying spectacle of a press conference, while the solo numbers contain an intimacy and poignancy that infuse the film with its emotional core. Rather than merely casting singers known for their musical ability, Marshall wisely chose stars who could aptly embody the characters while still performing their roles. As a result, the songs, while crucial, are just one more element in the wider tapestry of the film, as the plot remains front and center and the film avoids falling into the common musical trap of using the plot as a mere excuse for the music. As a result the film appeals equally to both musical theater buffs and moviegoers alike.

Never turn your back on an angry showgirl
The film successfully brings the stage shenanigans of Roxie, Velma, and company to roaring life through the uniformly stellar performances of its cast. Renee Zellwegger provides a fresh take on Roxie, as she manages to imbue her homicidal housewife with a girl next door charm that could win over even the most hardened jury. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a force of nature in her role as nightclub sensation turned notorious killer Velma, and adds depth and nuance to her portrayal of Velma’s desperate efforts to hold onto her career in the notoriously fickle limelight. Queen Latifah is equal parts sassy and sultry in her role as loveably corrupt prison matron, ‘Mama’ Morton. Richard Gere turns on the charm as the quick witted lawyer, Billy Flynn. John C Reilly makes the most of his limited screen time as Roxie’s betrayed husband and makes Amos a three dimensional character, rather than the befuddled dupe he is often portrayed as on stage. Christine Baranski lends an appropriately cynical turn as ‘sob sister’ columnist Mary Sunshine. While the majority of the cast are better known for their acting than their singing, each provides a performance that is nothing short of infectious as they sing, dance, and act with equal aplomb in the tradition of Hollywood’s legendary Golden Age triple-threats.

 From stage to screen 2002’s Chicago is never less than chic. Through its razor-blade sharp wit and toe-tapping tunes the film is guilty as charged of breathing fresh life into the movie musical. Through its biting social commentary the film tells a story that is eerily relevant despite remaining firmly within historical context, all while putting on a show with more than its fair share of razzle dazzle. For a take on the classic movie musical with a modern edge take a tour of Chicago.

Guns blazing, ladies!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Classics: A Review of Stranger Things By Lauren Ennis


In a world dominated by political unrest, violence, and economic upheaval it is all too tempting to yearn for the stability of a simpler time. Through the mere passage of time eras passed seem to lose their flaws as they take on the inviting glow of nostalgia.  Capitalizing upon the recent nostalgia for all things 1980’s the hit Netflix drama Stranger Things serves as an apt tribute to the sci-fi and adventure films of the 1980’s, while reminding us of the darker aspects of Cold War America that our nostalgia may have failed to account for.

And you thought middle school was frightening
The story begins as an homage to the stereotypical 80’s childhood with middle school sci-fi and fantasy fan Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarrazzo). In typical latchkey kid fashion, the boys end the night by setting off for their respective homes alone on their bikes. The plot then takes a turn into classic sci-fi territory as Will is pursued by a mysterious unseen force until he finally vanishes, seemingly into thin air. The disappearance sparks a town-wide man-hunt after Will’s dedicated but harried mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), enlists the aid of cynical town sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). While the case leaves the small mid-western town of Hawkins, Indiana shaken as residents struggle for answers, the matter is treated as a standard missing persons case. As Joyce, Hopper, and Will’s friends experience increasingly bizarre paranormal encounters, however, it becomes clear that Will’s disappearance is anything but standard, and Hawkins is far more than the quiet town that it appears to be. Eventually, the disappearance of a local teen, the mysterious activities at a top-secret government lab, and the arrival of a truly strange little girl converge to expose a web of corruption, espionage, and abuse that plunges viewers into the darkest corners of Cold War America.

Through its loving tribute to 80’s pop culture and skeptical approach to government that is equally applicable to the past and present Stranger Things reminds us of all that we miss in our past while serving as an apt warning for the future. The inclusion of government test subject Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in particular fuses these two elements to create a character who is equal parts familiar and original. The efforts of Mike, Lucas, and Dustin to hide Eleven in Mike’s basement in a disguise comprised of costume accessories directly recall the adventures of Elliott and E.T. In the midst of her comic adjustment to the outside world, however, the series never lets viewers forget the disturbing events that led to her arrival in Hawkins. Similarly, the boys’ interactions are directly reminiscent of both Stand By Me and The Goonies but still keep viewers engaged in their adventures. The story arcs featuring Mike’s seemingly perfect sister, Nancy, and Will’s social outcast older brother, Jonathan, also contain the genre tropes that catapulted John Hughes’ teen dramedies to classic status, but use them to create a story that is emotionally honest and timeless. While remaining within the context of Cold War paranoia, the series’ portrayal of anti-Soviet hysteria and citizens dismissed as collateral damage remains eerily relevant in today’s fraught political atmosphere. Through its fond glimpse at the past with a knowing nod to our own age, Stranger Things tells a truly unique tale that will resonate in any era.

Welcome back, Winona
The out of this world plot would have remained grounded if not for the inspired performances of its cast. In a stroke of casting genius 1980’s and 1990’s indie ‘it girl’ Winona Ryder brings Joyce to life in a performance that covers all the stages of loss without striking a false note. David Harbour infuses his hardened sheriff with a charisma and cynical charm that makes Hopper a suburban take on Indiana Jones. Natalia Dyer is excellent in her role as good girl gone popular Nancy and brings a mix of innocence and adolescent angst to her role that would make Molly Ringwald proud. Charlie Heaton captures the awkwardness and kindness of social outsider Jonathan, making him a perfect foil to his rival for Nancy’s affections, charming but self-absorbed Steve. Even when surrounded by outstanding performances by their adult counterparts, the series belongs to its youngest cast members. Finn Wolfhard is a natural in his role as confident but protective group leader Mike. Caleb McLaughlin captures Lucas’ obstinacy and cynicism while still evoking the loyalty and kindness that he keeps carefully guarded. Gaten Matarazzo’s performance as Dustin strikes the ideal balance between comic and poignant as his character evolves from sidekick to the group’s voice of reason. Millie Bobbie Brown nearly steals every scene in which she appears as the enigmatic Eleven as she captures the role’s difficult combination of childlike innocence and beyond her years maturity.

Through its equal parts 1980’s nostalgia and modern insight Stranger Things relates an eerie tale of a community coming together in the face of adversity that will inspire viewers of any generation. The series’ combination of an intelligent script, retro atmosphere, and a truly stellar cast ensures that it more than earns its place as Netflix’s crown jewel. With laughter, romance, friendship, family, as well as the thrills and chills of the best in adventure and sci-fi, Stranger Things makes nostalgia the new cutting edge.

I better get a pension out of this

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Classics: Three Hollywood It Couples to Spend your Valentine's Day with By: Lauren Ennis


Winter winds are blowing, hearts are glowing, and almost every store is stocked with candy and flowers. This can only mean one thing; that equal parts anticipated and dreaded holiday, Valentine’s Day, is just around the corner. In recognition of this celebration of all things romantic I’ll be highlighting three couples who sizzled just as much off-screen as on. Submit your favorite on and off-screen couples in the comments!


Sometimes even Garbo didn't want to be alone
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert: This silent screen duo proved that romance truly transcends words. The two first met on the set of the 1926 romantic drama Flesh and the Devil, in which Hollywood newcomer Garbo portrayed the wanton woman who comes between Gilbert’s smitten soldier and his best friend. The pair quickly embarked upon a tumultuous affair, which was reportedly so passionate that during filming of Flesh and the Devil director Clarence Brown and his crew would tiptoe off the set while the two leads continued their love scenes long after Brown called, ‘cut’. Initially, their relationship enhanced both stars’ personal and professional lives with Gilbert drawing the notoriously reclusive Garbo out of her shell and Garbo bringing stability to the volatile Gilbert, while their pairing proved to be box office gold. The duo went on to star in two more silent dramas, the modern update of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Love (1927), and the controversial (due to its thinly veiled references to homosexuality, addiction, and unplanned pregnancy) flapper tale A Woman of Affairs (1927). Tensions arose as he became frustrated by her refusal to accept his many marriage proposals and she became alienated by his increased drinking. Eventually, the pair went their separate ways when she left him at the altar after his drinking had begun to turn violent. Despite their less than amicable break-up, however, they did reunite for one final screen pairing in the 1933 historical drama Queen Christina ,in which Garbo played the Swedish monarch and Gilbert portrayed the Spanish ambassador for whom she abdicates her throne. By this time, her star had continued to rise, while his career was all but over after MGM executives used the transition to sound as an excuse to blacklist any stars they deemed troublesome. The blow to his career, combined with a crumbling personal life (including a bitter break up with Garbo’s rival Marlene Dietrich), proved devastating to Gilbert and led him to spiral even further into alcoholism. Despite their complicated past and his status as a studio liability, however, Garbo never forgot the ways in which Gilbert had helped launch her career and specifically requested that he be cast as her leading man. The sparks flew on screen (though Garbo remained aloof off screen) once again and their chemistry ensured that the film became one of her most critically acclaimed hits. Studio politics and addiction continued to plague Gilbert, however, and his career failed to revive. Shortly before his death three years later from a heart attack he was reported to have said of Garbo, “There’s never been a day since she and I parted that I haven’t been lonely for her”. Classic films fans remain just as lonely today for the pair’s timeless chemistry.

Insolence never looked so sexy
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: “Anybody got a match?” was Lauren Bacall’s first line in her debut film To Have and Have Not, and there may be no on-screen match as smart and sexy as that of Bacall and her co-star and eventual husband Humphrey Bogart. The pair first met on the set of To Have and Have Not (1944) when nineteen year old Bacall was still adjusting to life in Hollywood and Bogart was struggling with his failing third marriage to actress May Methot. When they were first introduced Bacall was unimpressed with the forty-five year old star and requested that the studio cast her opposite the more conventionally suave Cary Grant instead. When filming began, however, Bogart did his best to put his inexperienced and understandably anxious co-star at ease and the two developed a friendship. Before shooting wrapped, that friendship had developed into a passionate affair that would go down in cinema history. The film was an instant success that left audiences wanting more of the duo’s no nonsense sex appeal, and led to Bacall being cast opposite Bogart’s cynical detective in The Big Sleep (1947). Despite the disapproval of her family, his marriage, and the efforts of director Howard Hawks (who had vied to start an affair of his own with the uninterested Bacall) to break them up, the pair remained devoted to one another and married in 1945. They went on to star in two more films together, the suspense thriller Dark Passage (1947) in which Bogart’s fugitive from justice finds love with Bacall’s lonely designer, and the gangster classic Key Largo (1948) in which the pair are held hostage by and eventually turn the tables on a ruthless mob boss. The couple remained married for twelve years and had two children together. Tragedy shattered their seemingly idyllic life together when Bogart was diagnosed with cancer in 1956 and died one year later. When his ashes were buried Bacall had the gold whistle he had given her when shooting wrapped on To Have and Have Not, inscribed with the film’s famous line, “If you need anything just whistle”, put inside the urn. Despite eventually remarrying and pursuing other relationships in the years following Bogart’s death, Bacall always maintained that she had never met another man or acting partner who could measure up to him, and to this day it would be difficult to find an on-screen pair who could measure up to Bogart and Bacall.

The couple that laughs together....
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward: Fifty years of marriage is impressive, but fifty years of marriage in Hollywood must be an all-time record. Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward made marriage look every bit as glamorous as a movie romance in one of cinema’s most enduring love stories. The pair first met in 1953 when Newman starred in the sexually charged play Picnic on Broadway and Woodward was cast as understudy to the lead actress. While there was an immediate attraction between them, he was already married and their relationship remained strictly platonic throughout the production. They remained friends, but did not work together again until four years later when they were cast opposite one another in the sultry romance The Long Hot Summer, in which Newman’s charismatic drifter wins the heart of Woodward’s head-strong southern beauty. By that time, he had divorced his first wife and the sparks were free to fly as they embarked upon a whirlwind romance that culminated in their marriage the next year. Rather than continue to live in the Hollywood fast lane, they made their home in a Connecticut farmhouse and became involved in the local community, including restoring the Westport Playhouse, which Woodward remained artistic director of until 2009. Even after the births of their three daughters the couple continued to work together and starred in a total of ten films together, with Woodward starring in an additional five films that Newman directed. While they admitted that working together could be difficult, they credited relying upon humor and mutual respect to work through their differences. When sex-symbol Newman was asked how he was able to remain faithful in the notoriously racy industry he famously said, “Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home”. When asked what the secret to her lasting marriage was Woodward replied, “Sexiness wears thin after a while and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day, oh, now that’s a treat”. In 2008 their marriage reached a tragic end when Newman died at age eighty-three, three months after announcing that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. After fifteen film collaborations and fifty years of marriage Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward left a lasting legacy that extended far beyond the confines of the screen.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Classics: Three More Surprisingly Dark Children's Films By Lauren Ennis


Last year, I reviewed three films that I loved as a child only to find riddled with dark content and disturbing subtexts as an adult. After reflecting upon my childhood viewing experiences, I have come to realize that children’s movies, much like fairy-tales, often use exaggerated and graphic imagery to instill important lessons in children. Even with this common literary device in mind, however, I still cannot help but marvel at how truly twisted even some of the most beloved children’s films are. This week I will be putting the spotlight on three more films from my childhood that in their own way were every bit as gritty, morally ambiguous, and cynical as films marketed to adult audiences.

Damn it feels good to be a gangster...even with fur
ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN: Despite its title, the gritty adventures of this film’s canine protagonist are anything but heavenly. The story begins with loveable con-man (or in this case dog) Charlie (Burt Reynolds) escaping from death-row at the pound with the help of his loyal but hapless best friend, Itchy (Dom Deluise). Upon tunneling their way to freedom the pair celebrate with their friends by drinking and carousing at the local rat-track, where Charlie is reunited with his former business partner, Carface. It seems like old times until Carface calls out a mob hit on Charlie in order to avoid having to share their joint profits. In a scheme straight out of The Godfather, Carface holds a party in Charlie’s honor, where he makes sure that Charlie becomes thoroughly inebriated, and lures Charlie out onto a fishing pier where two of his henchmen are waiting. In a shockingly graphic scene the film then unflinchingly shows how Carface’s thugs push a car over the pier and run a completely unsuspecting Charlie down. When Charlie awakens, he is mortified to find that he has literally died and gone to Heaven. Rather than appreciate his good fortune at avoiding Hell after a life of crime, he immediately hatches a plot to escape Heaven and return to Earth, even though the angels warn him that once he leaves Heaven he can never return. As soon as he rejoins the living, he sets about exacting his revenge on Carface by exploiting Anne Marie, a lonely orphan who possesses the ability to talk to animals, to fix horse and rat races in an effort to ruin Carface’s gambling enterprise. Eventually, Charlie does see the error of his ways, but only after such less than kid-friendly adventures as pick-pocketing, opening a casino (complete with what is implied to be a topless dog review), dodging Carface’s raygun, and escaping cannibalistic sewer rats, all while consistently manipulating Little Orphan Annie-esque Anne Marie (Judith Barsi). And then there’s always Charlie’s doggy-Hell nightmare sequence which still haunts this reviewer twenty years on. While the film can be viewed as an apt tribute to classic gangster films of the 1930’s with charmingly scrappy crook, Charlie (Burt Reynolds) standing in for James Cagney (whom Charlie even quotes at one point) and his ruthless bulldog partner acting as an animated equivalent of Edward G Robinson (cigar chomping and all), the question remains; what is the purpose of making a gangster film for children? It could be argued that, much like its classic counterparts, the film attempts to teach viewers that crime does not pay through Charlie’s punishment and eventual redemption. This lesson is undermined, however, by the film’s noirish sensibility which portrays Charlie’s criminal lifestyle as a misguided attempt to find the American Dream amidst the desperation of the Great Depression. Regardless of how and why this film made it past the storyboard phase, one thing remains certain; director Don Bluth took the children’s entertainment to a dark and complex place that it has rarely gone before or since. For a journey into the back alleys of family filmmaking look no further than All Dogs Go To Heaven.

Clearly the work of a troubled mind
RETURN TO OZ: Easily the most disturbing entry on this list, 1985’s Return to Oz takes everything that we loved and thought we knew about the land of Oz and twists it into a Tim Burton worthy nightmare. The film picks up where the 1939 classic left off with Dorothy recovering from tornado induced head trauma as her aunt and uncle struggle to rebuild their devastated farm. When Dorothy continues to talk to her family about her adventuress in Oz the Gayle’s start to suspect that their niece isn’t just a lonely child with an active imagination. Aunt Em decides that Dorothy’s imaginings are the result of a mental disturbance brought on by her recent head trauma and packs the unsuspecting girl up for a trip to the local insane asylum. In keeping with the film’s 1800’s setting the local psychiatrist determines that ‘new electric healing’ a/k/a electroshock treatment is the best medicine. The film then descends into a phantasm of Kubrick-esque horror with a nurse reminiscent of Nurse Ratched, deranged patients, terrifying orderlies and some of the most barbaric medical equipment this side of the Middle Ages. Her only hope seems to be another young girl who is also being held as a patient against her will. Before young viewers can breathe a sigh of relief, however, the film shatters this one glimmer of hope by implying that the girl is a manifestation of Dorothy’s disassociated personality. Fortunately, with the mysterious girl’s help Dorothy does escape to the supposed safety of Oz only to find that it has become a deserted wasteland. Making matters worse, the film employs the same literary device as the 1939 film by having the characters in Oz mirrors those that she encounters in her waking life…which in this instance leaves Oz populated with a mind stealing headless witch (the nurse), gangs of her wheeled henchmen (the orderlies), and a rock giant known as the Nome King (the psychiatrist). After such terrifying adventures as exploring the witch’s head gallery and a deadly guessing game with the Nome King, Dorothy finally restores freedom to Oz and returns to Kansas. Upon returning home, she learns that the asylum caught fire after being struck by lightning in a rain storm and that the psychiatrist was killed in the fire while the nurse has since been arrested. At the film’s close she resumes her former life with one exception; she has now learned to keep Oz and all of her imaginings safely to herself. Part horror tale, and part examination of the disturbing early days of psychiatric treatment Return to Oz is a far cry from either Kansas or that land over the rainbow that we thought we knew.

Don't be fooled by the sunshine and flowers...
THE LAST UNICORN: Adapted from a fantasy novel written for adults, The Last Unicorn was never meant for young audiences, a fact that becomes painfully obvious as the 1982 animated film progresses. The film begins with a nameless unicorn setting out on a quest to discover others of her kind after she overhears a group of hunters discussing how unicorns have disappeared from the world. Shortly after leaving the safety of her forest, she is captured by a traveling carnival run by a witch called Mommy Fortuna, her hunchback assistant, Ruhk, and incompetent aspiring magician Schmendrick. The carnival is populated by animals that Fortuna disguises to look like magical creatures which she presents in a sideshow to unsuspecting villagers as the real thing. The two exceptions in the carnival are the unicorn and the harpy Celaeno; a half woman half bird creature with three ample breasts which the film makes a point to consistently expose. With the help of Schmendrick, the unicorn escapes the carnival, but in doing so accidentally frees the harpy, leading to a particularly brutal scene in which the harpy devours a resigned Fortuna. The duo then continue on their quest and encounter Molly Grue, the common-law wife of a local outlaw who is seriously regretting her life choices. After Molly rants at the unicorn, who she for some reason seems to blame for her lackluster existence, she insists upon joining the unicorn and Schmendrick on their journey. Before their travels can continue, however, Schmendrick’s magic goes awry and accidentally brings a tree to life….prompting the tree for no explained reason to grow human breasts and set about attempting to seduce Schmendrick. Fortunately, he is able to resist the tree’s bizarre charms and the quest resumes with the trio arriving at the castle of King Haggard, who is using the mysterious monster known as the Red Bull to imprison the world’s unicorns who he claims provide him with his only joy. Before they can enter the castle, however, they are ambushed by the Red Bull, an utterly terrifying creature who with hits white hot eyes, flamed hooves, and sharp fangs is a creature straight out of Hell itself. In order to rescue the unicorn from the Red Bull’s detection, Schmendrick is forced to transform her into a sultry…and completely naked, young woman, and pretend that she is his orphan niece. Eventually, the do reach the castle and Schmendrick is offered the position of court magician for the morbidly depressed Haggard while Molly assumes work as castle cook. Meanwhile, the king’s adopted son, Lir, sets about pursuing the unicorn, now called Lady Amalthea, through such romantic gestures as slaying a dragon and presenting her with its severed head. Over time the pair kindle a romance as the unicorn begins to lose memory of her former life and her mission. The film finally reaches a climax that is equal parts nonsensical and traumatizing. This final act includes such less than child friendly episodes as tempting an alcoholic skeleton with wine and  Lir’s brutal death after being stampeded by the Red Bull before the reappearance of the unicorns (who apparently could have fought off the Red Bull themselves all along by…just angrily pointing their horns at it?). Lir is fortunately revived by the unicorn in the final scene and reluctantly lets the unicorn go to resume her former life, though both are plagued by regret at what might have been. Sexually charged, brutally violent, and morally ambiguous, The Last Unicorn makes for an excellent entry into cinema’s fantasy cannon, so long as it is aimed at the adult audience it was originally written for.